Jewish World Review May 2, 2002 / 20 Iyar 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | If, in this time of global misunderstanding, disinformation and cultural clashes, you could teach people in other countries about the values America holds dear, which ones would you choose?
I can think of several: Political, religious and economic freedom would be high on my list, though I might make even those crucial liberties subservient to the idea of the ultimate value of each human life.
That ideal not only upholds the dignity of every individual, it also reminds us how we are called to live - as neighbors, as people who care about one another. It carries with it an acknowledgment that we are dependent on one another to achieve the full benefits of community.
Sometimes Americans express their most cherished values in creative and helpful ways. Our Peace Corps workers, for instance, embody them.
Our students studying abroad often represent them well. Our government's own ambassadors and other employees officially stand for such values. In many cases, even our military calls attention to those values because it is asked to defend them.
But sometimes the very freedoms we relish allow - and even encourage - the export of some of the less-useful values our American culture expresses.
Yes, TV and movies often are guilty here, but I have something else in mind.
Consider Orange County, China. The very California-ish name is a tip-off that someone is trying to compare oranges and tea leaves. Orange County, China, which mimicks suburban Los Angeles, is a gated community now being built an hour's drive from Beijing.
A recent Los Angeles Times account describes how the Chinese developer of this property is working with California architects and designers to create "a whole environment ... in the American style," as one of the developer's representatives put it. In a country of well over 1 billion people - many of whom live on subsistence wages under the direction of a centrally planned economy - Orange County, China, will offer $250,000 town homes and million-dollar luxury estates, complete with a lake and shopping and community centers.
The model homes now on display there look as if they were uprooted from a wealthy American suburb and plopped down on the ancient land where the arts, trade and scholarship once flourished under the Ming Dynasty.
Not only are these homes of American design, but the construction materials and even the furniture all are imported from this country.
A young man quoted in the Times story says quite plainly that the advantage of the house he now owns in Orange County, China, is that it separates him from the lower classes of humanity. He is insulated there from the madding crowds. Inside his gated community, he is secure in the knowledge that the hoi polloi won't keep him up at night, forcing him to listen to their growling stomachs and their moaning in restless nightmares about being unable to support their families.
I want to be clear about what is wrong with this. It's not that wealth is bad or that there is an uneven distribution of it - though that, too, raises issues of equity. But wealth always is irregularly spread around in any society, even those that - understanding how disheartening that can be - seek to make the rules fair.
And it's not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with American architecture or home construction.
Nor is it that cross-cultural experiences can't be enriching and shouldn't be encouraged. Usually, I would say, the more we can experience other cultures, the better off we'll all be.
No, what is wrong here is that we seem to have exported one of our worst traits. We have exported exclusivity and separation. We have offered to an ancient and honorable people the bogus idea that we can live cocooned in creature comforts that dull in us any sense of either responsibility to or connection with others.
Some people in other cultures and times - particularly in countries with traditions of monarchy - have held up separation and disconnection as useful standards. But no one has done this with more arrogant assurance (often bowing to the god of security) than America's gated suburban communities.
Our sometimes spectacular failure to live in harmony with one
another is not what we should export to